The novel's protagonist and narrator, Peekay is a white English South African who recounts his life growing up in South Africa during World War II and the beginning of the apartheid era. An extremely precocious student and a naturally brilliant boxer, Peekay is loved by almost all who meet him. He moves a legend amongst black South Africans, who believe that he has come to avenge them against the Afrikaners. Each side, however, wishes to claim Peekay for themselves. Peekay's generosity and altruism leads him to devise ways of helping black prisoners write and receive letters, and to teach black men to box. Peekay's sense of humor, his fascinating philosophical and analytical voice, and his ability to criticize himself allow us to identify closely with him.
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Doc is a German music professor, in his 80s, with whom Peekay becomes best friends in the town of Barberton. Doc's loves are music, cacti, whisky, and coffee. Doc was a concert pianist in Germany before he gave up performing after a disastrous concert in Berlin in 1925. He is one of Peekay's most important mentors, but is prized by the Barberton citizens only for the culture he brings to the town through his classical music. The only characters other than Peekay with whom Doc has much contact are Geel Piet and Mrs. Boxall. When Doc dies, he leaves all his belongings to Peekay.
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Geel Piet is a Cape Colored man who works in the Barberton prison. A rascal of a man, he nevertheless becomes Peekay's personal boxing trainer in Barberton and develops a close relationship with both Peekay and Doc. Geel Piet is largely responsible for spreading the myth of the Tadpole Angel. The most important lesson he teaches Peekay in terms of boxing is to fight with his feet- he tells Peekay to "dance" with his feet. Geel Piet is brutally murdered by one of the Barberton prison warders, Borman, who grows suspicious of Peekay and Geel Piet's close relationship. Together Peekay and Geel Piet were running a black market within the prison.
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Morrie is a very rich Jewish boy who becomes Peekay's partner at the Prince of Wales School. Morrie, who is a foil to Peekay, teaches Peekay the tricks of business-gambling is his passion, and he and Peekay set up all kinds of "scams" together. Morrie, like Peekay, is an "outsider" because of his Jewishness, and Morrie has to put up with racism from the likes of Jannie Geldenhuis. Morrie is a loner, an intellectual, a fine joke-teller, and a generous friend. He undergoes a catharsis during the course of the novel-through Peekay he comes to know black people for the first time in his life, and he becomes extremely invested in the night school that he and Peekay start for the black boxers at Solly Goldman's gym. When Peekay does not win a Rhodes scholarship, Morrie wants to pay for him to attend. He is prepared to defer his own degree in order to study with Peekay. He does not understand Peekay's boxing dream, however, and wants Peekay to become his law partner.
The Judge is a huge Afrikaans boy who traumatizes five-year-old Peekay at his first boarding school. The Judge dubs Peekay "Pisskop" and makes Peekay his personal slave and "prisoner of war." The Judge convinces Peekay that Hitler is going to march all the Englishmen in South Africa into the sea. He has a swastika tattoo on his arm. In his final torture of Peekay at school, he tries to make Peekay eat human feces. When Peekay's pet chicken, Granpa Chook, defecates into his mouth, the Judge pelts Granpa Chook to death. At the end of the novel the Judge happens to be Peekay's diamond driller in the mines. In the novel's final scene, the Judge (Botha) searches for Peekay in the Crud Bar, screaming for his blood. Peekay recognizes the tattoo on Botha's arm, and fights him until he has knocked him out. With a pocketknife, Peekay carves a Union Jack and the letters "PK" over the Judge's swastika tattoo.
Mrs. Boxall is the librarian in Barberton and has a weekly column in the local newspaper called "Clippings from a Cultured Garden." She becomes a great friend of Peekay and of Doc, and she personally undertakes to educate Peekay in English literature. Mrs. Boxall, a generous and magnanimous woman, initiates the mysterious Sandwich Fund, whereby she gathers food, money, letters, and tobacco for black prisoners and their families. She delights in classical music and loves Doc's concerts.
Miss Bornstein is a young Jewish woman who arrives to teach at the Barberton primary school while Peekay is studying there. She becomes a mentor to Peekay and helps him to win a scholarship to the prestigious private boys school in Johannesburg, the Prince of Wales school. Her grandfather, Mr. Bornstein, becomes Doc's chess partner. Peekay is stupefied by Miss Bornstein's beauty-she has thick dark hair, bright green eyes, a perfect complexion, and a perfect smile. She continues to write copious study notes for Peekay after he leaves for the Prince of Wales school. Peekay and Morrie eventually publish these notes and sell them. They help to establish the famous "Miss Bornstein Correspondence School," of which Miss Bornstein becomes the principal.
We never learn the name of Peekay's mother. She suffers from a nervous breakdown in Peekay's youth, and is absent for many years at what Peekay calls "the nervous breakdown place." She returns to live with Peekay and his Granpa in Barberton, where she becomes a seamstress-and a born again Christian. She spends most of her time zealously trying to proselytize people.
Granpa spends most of his time tending his rose garden, which he cultivates for his long-dead English wife, and chuffing on his pipe. He is notorious for telling Peekay irrelevant stories when Peekay goes to him for advice. A racist, Granpa nevertheless has respect for Inkosi-Inkosikazi since he cured him of his gall stones. Granpa also helps Peekay convince his mother to allow him to teach the black inmates at the Barberton prison.
Nanny is Peekay's Zulu wet nurse. She brings Peekay up telling him stories of warriors and women washing by the baboon's water hole. When Peekay prays as a child, he prays not to God, but to his nanny. She summons the great Inkosi-Inkosikazi to cure Peekay's bedwetting problem. As a result, Peekay brings great honor on her because she has the chance to flaunt her story-telling skills in front of the medicine man. When Peekay arrives in Barberton, he is distraught to find that his beloved Nanny is not there. Peekay learns that Nanny had an argument with his mother-Nanny refused to remove her charms and amulets in accordance with Peekay's mother's born-again Christian beliefs.
Gideon Mandoma is Nanny's son and the great-great-grandson of the Zulu chief Cetshwayo. Peekay boxes against him and emerges victorious in Sophiatown. Gideon continues to train at Solly Goldman's gym and he and Peekay become great friends. Peekay and Morrie use Gideon in order to inspire guilt in Singe 'n' Burn, their headmaster, when they try to convince the man to allow them to start a night school for black boxers.
Dum and Dee are Peekay's Shangaan twin kitchen maids. They become the caretakers of Doc's cottage and are very possessive over Doc and Peekay.
Marie is a fifteen-year-old farm girl who works as a nurse in the Barberton hospital. Peekay's mother manages to turn her into a born-again Christian and Marie, in turn, tries to proselytize everyone she can.
Borman is the aggressive warder at Barberton prison who brutally murders Geel Piet.
Hoppie Groenewald is one of the guards on Peekay's train to Barberton, and is also the "champion of the railways." He inspires Peekay to begin boxing lessons and his dictum "First with the head, then with the heart" remains with Peekay throughout the novel.
Big Hettie is an obese Irish woman whom Peekay sits next to during Hoppie's boxing match against Jackhammer Smit in Gravelotte. Big Hettie gets stuck in the train compartment and-after stuffing her face with food-dies when they reach the town of Kaapmuiden. She teaches Peekay the importance of pride and courage.
Inkosi-Inkosikazi is the great Zulu medicine man who, at the beginning of the novel, is summoned by Peekay's nanny to cure the boy's bedwetting problem. Inkosi-Inkosikazi introduces Peekay to the magical world of the "night country," where Peekay can always find him. He also gives Granpa Chook to Peekay. Interestingly, Inkosi-Inkosikazi, a modern medicine man, drives a Buick.
Lieutenant Smit works at the Barberton prison and is one of the boxing coaches. He is also the brother of the well-known boxer, Jackhammer Smit, which is how he and Peekay initially strike up a friendship-Peekay saw Jackhammer Smit fight against Hoppie in Gravelotte. Smit, a reasonably non-prejudiced man, avenges Geel Piet's death for Peekay by beating up Borman. Yet Smit is not entirely devoid of racist attitudes-at his introduction, he allows his colleague Klipkop to beat one of the servants for an offense that he did not commit.
Kommandant van Zyl is in charge of the Barberton prison. A simple man, he enjoys "braais" (barbecues), "tiekiedraais" (dances), and often commissions Doc to give piano concerts. He is notorious for taking the credit for inventions of other people.
Solly Goldman is a Jewish man, and the best boxing trainer in South Africa. He coaches Peekay while Peekay attends the Prince of Wales School in Johannesburg and teaches Peekay his famous thirteen-punch combination.
Singe 'n' Burn is the headmaster at the Prince of Wales school. An Englishman, he is known for choosing six boys from the third form each year to take under his personal tutelage and mold into "Renaissance men." Singe 'n' Burn assists Peekay and Morrie with setting up the night school for black boxers, but only after he has met Gideon Mandoma.
Granpa Chook is Peekay's pet chicken, given to him as a gift from Inkosi-Inkosikazi. Granpa Chook is Peekay's only friend in the hostile boarding school environment. He becomes Mevrou's cockroach cleaner. He stands up for Peekay by defecating into the Judge's open mouth while the Judge is trying to make Peekay eat human feces. Peekay is heartbroken when the Judge kills Granpa Chook by pelting him to death with stones. Peekay gives Granpa Chook a fine burial and, at the end of the novel, he avenges Granpa Chook's death by beating up the Judge.
Rasputin is a Russian man who lives next door to Peekay in the mining camp in Northern Rhodesia. A hulk of a man, each evening he hews a wooden ball with a great axe while he drinks whisky and listens to Tchaikovsky. He buys sweets for the mining kids on Wednesday western nights, and he loves to make rabbit (or cat) stew for Peekay. When Peekay is knocked unconscious in a mining accident, Rasputin comes to the rescue, killing himself in order to save his friend.